Tag Archives: History

Beauty, darkness and hope: or today would be a good day to be in Kraków

I love living in the city and I have loved travelling to numerous cities around the world. There is great beauty in the history, the architecture, the art, the culture, found in the compactness of an old city. Side by side, layer by layer, the joys and accomplishments, alongside the sorrows and horrors. The best and worst of humanity can often be seen. Beauty just across from darkness, and somewhere somehow in the midst, hope.

Kraków is Poland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest continuously inhabited city. While one of my main goals is visiting this part of the world was to spend a significant, but certainly not ‘good’, day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kraków was an unexpected delight. It is a gorgeous city, but it also has its own historic horror, and I found myself looking for both beauty and hope.

What did I love about Kraków?

Kraków’s entire medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The town square is a gathering place of art, food, performance and music.

At one edge sits St Mary’s Basilica.

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Inside is its famous Gothic altarpiece,

and its stunning painted ceilings and walls.

Every hour a trumpeter appears from the highest tower to play a traditional anthem.

Down the city’s narrow streets are hidden gems of buildings …

… and gardens  …

… and courtyards.

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Overlooking Old Town is the fortified castle hill of Wawel,

with its Cathedral consisting of a conglomeration of chapels and domes of varying styles and periods.

The Jewish history of the city is seen in Kazimierz and its own market square, Wolnica.

Here, the beautiful Three Musicians sculpture and its adjacent tree caught my eye.

From there it is a short walk to the Vistula river

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with its modern bridges joining different parts of the city easily and accessibly.

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What did I learn from Kraków?

It is on the other side of the river that some of the darker parts of this beautiful city’s history became more apparent.

Here in Podgórze the Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.

It was ‘liquidated’ (far too sterile a term) in 1943.

A simple memorial in the square is confronting in its starkness.

Each of the 70 chairs represents 1000 lives.

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One glimpse of hope is the Schindler Factory, best known from the 1993 film, which is today a museum about this dark chapter in world history.

But for the people of this city, perhaps the best glimpse of hope is found in their favourite son, a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here during this horrific period in history. After losing his family, he turned not away from but toward God and entered the priesthood.

Some forty years later he was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II and becoming a beloved figure known for his commitment to peace and reconciliation. Hope out of darkness indeed.

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When you can no longer say ‘I didn’t know’ … it’s time to #changethedate

Thirty years ago today, I was a schoolgirl standing in the crowds around Sydney Harbour watching a re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet 200 years before. I didn’t know then that at the same moment, the largest protest in Australia since the Vietnam War was happening just down the street.

I didn’t know then that the day I had been singing about as the “celebration of a nation” was for many others felt and remembered as “Invasion Day”, “Day of Mourning” and “Survival Day.” 

I didn’t know then that the Prime Minister was making a promise that day that there would be a treaty with our indigenous peoples within two years, a treaty that has still not eventuated, making Australia the only Commonwealth country without one.

I didn’t know then that sixteen years earlier, a tent embassy had been established outside Parliament House as a response to our nation’s refusal to recognise the rights of our indigenous peoples. I had caught a glimpse of that tent while on a school excursion two years prior, but I certainly hadn’t been told what it was or had that story included in our introduction to our country’s (white) history.

I didn’t know then that fifty years earlier, Aboriginal men had been locked up at the Redfern Police Barracks stable and then forced to be unwilling participants in an (inaccurate) re-enactment of the events of 150 years prior.

I didn’t know then that the mortality rate of indigenous children in Australia is twice that of non-indigenous children, or that there is a life expectancy gap of between 10 and 17 years.

I didn’t know then the words “stolen generations.” I had never heard them and would be horrified to discover what they mean.

I didn’t know then a single Aboriginal person. I hadn’t heard their stories, been welcomed onto their lands, been embraced by their communities, sung together as sisters and brothers, learned from their incredibly rich and diverse cultures.

And I didn’t know then that as well as my First Fleet ancestors whom I was taught to take such pride in, I have ancestors who participated in massacres of indigenous Australians. That this, too, is my history.

I didn’t know then. But I know now.

And now that I know, I can’t find today a day of celebration.

Now that I have learned, I can’t pretend that this doesn’t affect me or touch my life.

Now that I have listened, I can’t ignore the pain and hurt that has been shared with me by those who carry it.

That’s why I believe it’s time to #changethedate.

 

*Just to be clear, I do think 26 January should continue to be a day on which we acknowledge and remember the troubled history of this land and consider how we can work towards greater reconciliation and justice. But I think we should choose another day for our National Celebration Holiday.

Walking through history, or today would be a good day to be in Budapest

I haven’t posted a Monday travel reflection in a while, but today I’m thinking I’d love to go back to the city of Budapest for another wander. Hungary is still a country I admit to knowing very little about – culture, history, food, people. But I truly loved spending a few days walking the streets of its capital city and getting just a tiny glimpse of some of those things.

One thing I’ve learned about myself through travel is that I make sense of a place by walking it. And walking helps me connect with its history too. Imagining those who have walked before, gaining insight into their lives and experiences, never fails to inspire, challenge, move and teach me.

What did I love about Budapest?

The architecture.

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The Hungarian Parliament building on the Pest side of the Danube is stunning …

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… as is the Castle on the Buda side.

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Linking the two sides of the city are a number of bridges, including the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

There are beautiful churches …

… as well the lovingly restored Dohány Street Synagogue.

Nationalistic pride is on display in different ways from the military memorial at Heroes Square,

to the reliquary supposedly holding St Stephen’s right hand in the Basilica.

I’m a bibliophile, and Budapest had one of the best and most beautiful bookcafes I have ever been to, the Alexandra Bookcafe, although sadly it has apparently recently closed.

What did I learn from Budapest?

What you can’t miss wandering the streets of this city are the memorials everywhere. Testaments to not just life, but death and brutality. Those who were “disappeared” under the Soviet regime.

Those who were deliberately and publicly exterminated en masse.

Jews have a long history in Hungary, and made up almost a quarter of the population at the beginning of World War II. Up to three quarters of these people did not survive the war.

 

I’ve been to a number of Holocaust Museums around the world, but found Budapest’s one of the most moving, with its honest accounts of the harrowing story and lists of thousands upon thousands of names.

It is housed in a renovated synagogue, and at the back of the prayer hall there are ‘ghost seats’ for the members of the congregation who did not return.

In the Jewish cemetery, Imre Varga’s weeping willow statue bearing the family names of murdered Jews is hauntingly beautiful.

For me personally, perhaps most affecting was the memorial called “Shoes on the Danube River” which marks the spot where 3,500 people were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militia.

I’ve been similarly moved by piles of shoes at Auschwitz in Poland and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There is something simply profound in imagining the lives of those who once walked in a pair that has been left behind.

How does that speak into how I think about where my shoes will be walking this day?